Women Build Crews Helping Future Habitat for Humanity Homeowners
You might be surprised to see bright pink hard hats on a home construction site. If it’s a house being built by Habitat for Humanity, those hats likely belong to an all-female crew volunteering for a Women Build event. These women-focused projects give female volunteers (men are also welcome) to volunteer to work on a Habitat for Humanity house while picking up new skills for building and repairing homes. Volunteers, who work alongside construction professionals, other volunteers, and often the future Habitat homeowners, can combine learning with helping to create a more stable and sustainable community.
Recently, some of my friends participated in their second Women Build project in DuPage County (just outside Chicago), so I wanted to learn more about their experience and why they continue to volunteer for these charitable projects.
Origins of the Women Build Program
To add some context to my friends’ stories, I wanted to understand more about the Women Build program. I’ve been a long-time supporter of Habitat for Humanity both with my time and financial donations, so I’m familiar with the global nonprofit housing organization’s vision of “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” I had not, however, heard of the Women Build program.
Apparently, I was woefully out of the loop! The first official Women Build program at Habitat for Humanity started in 1998 – that’s 25 years ago!
Here are some other fascinating facts about the Women Build program:
In 1991, the first home built by women was completed in Charlotte, N.C., sparking the idea for Women Build. Home building with female crews still takes place in a few Habitat affiliates.
In 1997, the First Ladies Build project took place with U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton, Kentucky first lady Libby Jones and Oklahoma first lady Cathy Keating volunteering for a Women Build project.
From 1999-2001, First Lady Build events included women governors and first ladies from all 50 states to build affordable housing.
In 2003, the program grew more than twofold thanks to corporate sponsorship from Lowe’s and Home Interiors and Gifts, Inc.
From 2006-2007, the First Families Building Homes Across American program succeeded in building Habitat homes in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia for a total of 52 across the country. This effort included women volunteers along with governors’ spouses and local and statewide leaders.
From 2019 to 2021, the Women Build expanded to international locations, “empowering women everywhere to address housing issues for themselves, their families and their neighbors.” The first Women Build Week was launched as an annual event. It starts on International Women’s Day, March 8.
The Women Build project in DuPage County raised more than $189,000 (surpassing their goal) and had more than 300 volunteers help throughout the effort. The dedication ceremony for the four homes, completed in part thanks to the Women Build volunteers, will take place on October 28.
Community Moms Decide to Volunteer
So, how did my friends get involved in this event? Last summer I noticed Facebook posts by a couple of my friends asking for donations to participate in a Women Build project for Habitat for Humanity. After a quick chat with one of them, my good friend Sherri, I understood that each woman participating had to fundraise at least $350 to help support the cost of building materials and other supplies for the house they would be working on. I was happy to donate to Sherri and another friend Danette.
I also learned from Sherri that they were all volunteering on the same day at a Habitat house and that they learned about the opportunity from another friend Laura, who we all know from being Girl Scout troop leaders. Laura has been involved as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer since 2004 through her church, which used to send a group each year to the annual Jimmy Carter Works project. She participated in three of these week-long “blitz build” efforts: Mexico in 2004, Michigan in 2005, and a local project in Elgin, Ill., in 2008. Laura then took a 10-year break when her kids were small but kept tabs on the local Habitat chapter affiliates. In 2018 she checked with the local chapter about service-related opportunities for her Girl Scout troop. Although too young to help with the building projects, the girls did serve lunch at a Women Build event that year.
But Laura’s involvement with Habitat and getting people organized didn’t stop there. When her youngest child entered kindergarten, Laura set up a brunch club for moms with school-aged kids. Now that group has evolved into a group of moms with kids of all ages who meet up for social events and frequent volunteering/service opportunities. The Women Build event was a logical fit, so Laura promoted it on her mom group Facebook page last year, when members of the group first volunteered. That Women Build project involved helping to clean out a former Habitat home that had been vacated in nearby West Chicago, Ill., before reselling it. The women removed trim boards, cabinets, doors, and flooring. They also cut up and removed old furniture and washed walls in preparation for painting.
That experience was so successful that many moms (and some new ones) volunteered again this year. The group worked in smaller teams in two homes to caulk nail holes in trim boards and other wall imperfections before other teams later painted. They also cleared weed clumps and tree roots in the yard before laying new sod. As luck would have it (well, bad luck), Laura was unexpectedly out of commission and couldn’t join the group a few weeks ago. Laura says the group plans to make it an annual volunteer activity.
Photo 1: Sherri caulks nail holes in baseboard trim pieces. / Photo 2: Danette caulks imperfections in a wall in the kitchen. / Photo 3: Kelli rolls out another piece of grass sod in the yard of one of the Habitat homes. / Photo 4: Sherri pulls weeds from a yard before the grass sod is installed. / Photo 5: Danette finally gets her hands on a power tool, a sawzall reciprocating saw, to remove a tree root. / Photo 6: The sod-laying crew poses with their team leader on the Women Build project.
Common Reasons to Volunteer
Like many people, Danette had heard about Habitat for Humanity for many years. A friend of hers had volunteered in another state and had loved the experience. So, when Danette was talking with Laura about the Women Build opportunity, she was all in to participate. Danette says she especially liked the idea of not knowing anything about construction but having someone there to teach her. She wasn’t afraid of learning something new.
Similarly, Habitat for Humanity also supports their new homeowners by requiring them to take classes on home ownership. Danette says it made her realize that if you (a new homeowner) or your parents had never owned a home before, “one that is yours to the floor boards,” and don’t know that much about home maintenance, then you really have no idea how to take care of a home...even simple things like cleaning the back of the refrigerator, changing a can light, maintaining the right temperature in the house to avoid frozen pipes, and using fans to keep mold away.
Danette also likes a sentiment shared by the Women Build coordinators:
“We know that when women connect, we challenge each other to succeed; when women give, we improve our world; and when women build, we change our community for the better.”
Sherri expressed similar reasons for why she has volunteered for the Women Build event for two years. “I really enjoyed the project and what I did last year,” she says. “It’s a really good cause, and I liked spending the day with other women, the comradery. I would do [the event] again.”
She also understands the disparity between men’s and women’s salaries that means most women, especially black women, can never own homes. Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and especially the Women Build program lets her contribute toward changing the story for new homeowners and their families.
How to Help Women Build and Habitat for Humanity
If you are interested in helping build homes with affordable mortgages for new homeowners or help fix up homes for those needing assistance, there are several options. Be sure to check your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate’s website for which programs and options they have.
Here are a few ways you can get involved:
Volunteer individually or in a group to work on a home construction or maintenance site.
Organize a group volunteer project as business partners, community organizations, and faith partners.
Choose to travel in the U.S. or abroad to work on affordable shelter for those in need.
Provide long-term service through programs like AmeriCorps or Disaster Corps.
Make a financial contribution to the organization at the local or international level.
Shop at, donate items to or volunteer to work at Habitat’s ReStore locations.
As for me, I’m checking out my local St. Louis Habitat affiliate for local volunteer opportunities. I also have some items to donate to my local ReStore shop. And finally, I'm planning to join my friends back in DuPage County for next year’s Women Build project.
I think I’ll look good in a pink hard hat – I know I’ll feel good helping to build a home for a new owner and family!